How to Manage a Bunch of Clowns: Q&A with the CEO of Cirque du Soleil
Nothing could have prepared Daniel Lamarre for his gig as chief executive officer of Cirque du Soleil—a company that employs wigmakers and contortionists and yes, a CFO. The live entertainment giant, profiled in the current issue of Fortune, has wowed audiences for decades with its death-defying stunts and extravagant sets and costumes. But what goes on behind the scenes has also been quite colorful.
For most of its history, Cirque’s corporate strategy relied heavily on trying crazy new show concepts and investing in the occasional pet project (think unprofitable restaurants and nightclubs). That vision was set by one man: Guy Laliberté, Cirque’s co-founder and long-time leader. In 2001, Laliberté brought in Lamarre as head of “new ventures,” promoting him to CEO of the company a few years later, even as Laliberté remained the company’s creative spirit, not to mention financial owner. A much bigger change came in 2015, when Laliberté sold the company to a trio of investors led by private equity firm TPG Capital. Since then, Cirque has expanded in new ways and brought in a new executive team.
Lamarre is one of a small handful of execs who have stayed with the company through this most recent twist. (Laliberté, who had majority ownership before the acquisition, retains a 10% stake in the company and has moved on to other projects.) That puts the CEO, who now answers to a board of directors mostly made up of its new owners, in a unique position to tell Cirque’s story, past, present and future. As Fortune found out, it’s a story worth telling.
The excerpt below, from our recent interview with Lamarre, has been edited.
Fortune: You had run a variety of businesses before [coming to Cirque]. What was different here when you first arrived?
Lamarre: Everything. It’s funny because I joined the company and I said ‘Guy, I’m a quick learner, give me a couple of months and I’ll figure it out.’ And he was laughing at me. He said ‘Daniel, this is more complicated than that.’ And what makes it complicated even today is that there’s no benchmark. I cannot compare our business to Live Nation or anybody else. So you have to learn the Cirque business model. And that’s what makes it difficult. Every time we have a new employee it takes time for someone to understand our business model.
In the years leading up to the acquisition, what was going on? What led to the decision?
First of all, I joined the company at a perfect time. Because that was the time where the brand was totally ready to explode internationally. So I would call my first 10 to 12 years our golden age. We were trying a lot of crazy ideas, and they seemed to be working.
And then after those golden years, then came [the global recession of] 2008 and it was more difficult for us, like everybody else. We had to streamline the company and all of that. And that’s when Guy started to think about sharing the ownership of the company because he thought that it was getting more and more difficult to support the growth of the organization. And he started feeling that if we could find the right shareholders it could bring Cirque to the next level. After a few years of talking about it one day he said, ‘I’m ready.’
Can you describe what you see as the biggest, the most profound changes to the company since the acquisition [by TPG Capital and two other investors]?
First and foremost, the one thing I would like to say is that the bread and butter of this organization is creation. We have protected the entire team in creation. And to me, that was very, very important. I said to TPG at the time, ‘You can come into my office ten times a day if you so desire, I’ll give you all the financial information you need, all the operation information you need. But you shouldn’t go into the creative department because that’s the core of the company, and I don’t want them to be disturbed by any changes we are making.’ So that’s the first thing.
Then, from the business standpoint, obviously TPG brought a financial discipline that was different than what we had before. Because basically now I’m reporting to a board. We have to do reports, monthly financial reports and all of that. And then we very quickly realized that from a business standpoint I needed to enhance our core team. [Since the acquisition, Cirque has brought in a new CFO, COO, head of HR and the company’s first-ever CMO and head of China.]
So now I think I have the best team to go to the next level. And that was my motivation to stay at Cirque. Because I truly believed that from this organization that had reinvented the circus arts, that now we were at the stage when we could become a true live entertainment organization. Meaning that moving forwards we’re not going to do only circus shows but we are now looking at other artists’ content that we can develop. [Cirque is now developing an interactive attraction in Times Square for the NFL and a live entertainment “experience” for kids, among other new projects.]
As all these new ideas are bubbling up and getting financed, there’s always the risk of diluting the brand. So what won’t Cirque do?
First, we’re a live entertainment organization. And that’s what we will continue to do. In terms of the brand, it’s not for me to decide what I stand for. It’s the consumers that are telling us what they expect from Cirque du Soleil. And it has some limitations. Because for them, they see a big wand, they see acrobatics, they see new technology, they see a lot of different things. But if I go too far from that, then they will not recognize us. So it means that, for instance, there are activities that we’re going to develop, the NFL experience being an example of that, where we won’t put our brand. If we want to broaden and diversify our content, we have to be aware that there are things that we can do under our brand, and there are other things that we cannot do with our brand.
Going back to when the transaction took place: what was the biggest change for you, personally?
It’s very, very different. Because Guy and I have been working together for fifteen years, so we were talking every day basically. But Guy was traveling all the time. He’s barely ever in Montreal. So in terms of the difference, for me it’s that I passed from a regime of a one-man-show, which was Guy, to feeling it’s now a partnership. I feel I’m a partner in the organization. I feel my key players are partners. And I feel that TPG, Fosun, La Caisse, Guy [the current owners of the company], we’re all working in partnership.
Now, I have people getting excited again. When we announced the transaction, everybody was very scared. ‘Are we going to lose our soul? Are we going to stay in Montreal?’ A normal employee of Cirque du Soleil is fueled by new shows. If there is something happening in the studio, everybody feels good because it’s a concrete sign that the company is doing well. Right now we’re working on three new shows. And we have more to come. So the employees say, ‘Oh my god, they were serious. TPG was serious when they told us that they wanted to develop the company.’